(This is an excerpt from my memoir project)
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” – Corinthians 13:11
“You’re just like your Father.”
When I was very young, I heard this all the time, often times from my Aunts, most often from my Mother. It was usually after I had gotten into trouble of some kind, so it really wasn’t meant as a compliment. But that made no difference to me because, when I was small, I was like many other young sons in that my Father was my hero.
When I was small, I thought there was nothing my Father couldn’t do or hadn’t done. He could fix anything, and he’d been everywhere. He was strong, he was smart, and most of all, he was funny. There’s never been anyone who could make me laugh like my Dad.
One of the best things I can say about my Dad, and one of the best compliments I can think of giving anyone, is that he’s always been good company. As a small child observing him interact with other adults, it didn’t take me long to notice that the others were often laughing and almost always smiling at something my Dad had said. They may have been scratching their heads in confusion, but they were almost always smiling.
My Dad is a master storyteller. He made his living all those years driving eighteen wheelers by night across the Midwest. As a truck driver, he knew he wasn’t paid for showing up at some destination. He didn’t earn his pay when he pulled into the terminal in Cleveland. He was paid instead for the journey, for navigating all the miles between Milwaukee and Cleveland, for living in the lonely dark hours before sunrise when the rest of America was sleeping. It was this knowledge of the road that informed his storytelling. Those impatient to reach a destination, those unimaginative souls looking for a point to my Dad’s stories, would wind up frustrated and disappointed. But those of us who had learned to strap ourselves in and let him take us on the meandering off-ramps and detours his stories inevitably took would discover the wonderful and unexpected treasures that existed in the back roads of his mind. We’d watch as some small place or minor event would be recreated in incredible detail, waiting more often than not in vain to see if it actually had anything to do with the outcome of the story, and then, after stringing us along for so long that we’d forget just what the Hell the story was about in the first place, he’d pause, stare off into space, scratch the side of his bald head, and get that quizzical look on his face that we all recognized, that told us, here it comes, grab a hold of something quick, because the payoff is coming, and then, with a master’s timing, he’d deliver the punch line, usually self deprecating and almost always hysterically underwhelming for all the buildup we had endured. And we’d laugh, and he’d laugh with us, and one of the things I admired about him more than anything was that he was usually laughing at himself. If there was ever anybody who didn’t take himself too seriously, it’s my Dad.
As with many other sons, when I was very young, my Dad was my hero and, as with many other sons, the older I got, the less need I had for heroes. I began, like every child does at some point, to see flaws in my Father. Some of the same things that were sweet and charming at age five at age 14 were embarrassing. As I grew older still I noticed other flaws, such as occasional insensitivity and awkwardness in dealing with those situations that demanded an honest emotional response. Don’t get me wrong, I recognized that these were minor character flaws, and the same undying love I always had for him continued unchanged. It’s just that by this time, I was a full grown man myself, making my own way in the world, and the need for heroes had been put away with other childish things.
Then, in March of 1993, when I was 34 years old, my Mom was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. In November of the same year, my Dad had quadruple heart bypass surgery. The following March, my Mom was hospitalized with a stroke that signaled the beginning of the end, she returned with a hospital bed to the living room of their house on Tower Road to die at home. My Dad, only four months removed and still weak from heart surgery, and my Sister Jenny and Sister-In-Law Sue took turns keeping vigil at my Mom’s bed side for the more than three long months of pain and decline that were her final days. I’d come up and visit on the weekends, but the heavy lifting of the care giving was administered by my Dad, Jenny and Sue.
Finally, one weekend in May, when my Mom was doing relatively well, my Dad convinced Jenny and Sue to both take a long deserved weekend off and return to their homes and families. If things got too bad, we reasoned, I’d be there to help out. They reluctantly agreed, leaving Saturday morning and coming back late Sunday, leaving my Dad and I to hold down the fort for a couple of short days and one night.
Saturday came and went, pleasant and warm, my Mom sleeping a lot and in relatively good spirits most of the day. Then night came, and my Mom was sleeping soundly, so I left my Dad sitting in his chair by my Mom’s bedside and went off to sleep in the camper he had parked in the front yard. The camper had been equipped and tested with the same walky-talky monitors Deb and I had used when Jon and Nick were babies; my Dad would call for me over these airwaves if he needed any help in the night. I quickly fell into a deep sleep.
Sometime around 3:00 I was awakened by the static filled voices of my Mom and Dad over the walky-talky. As I gathered my wits about me, I listened, and realized very quickly that my Mom was having a bad episode. I had heard about these episodes from Jenny and Sue, but I hadn’t witnessed any. My Dad, still weak from the surgery, was doing his best, keeping his cool, trying to calm her down. I got dressed and slipped my shoes on and put my hand on the door handle of the camper, ready to climb up the driveway and help my Dad, but, as I listened in horror to the events on the radio, I froze. I couldn’t bear to see what I was hearing, to see my Mom in that state and I stood there, my hand on the door handle, for an eternity while the sounds of my Dad taking care of my increasingly agitated Mom echoed through the night air. My Dad, who, despite the fact that his already fragile heart had to be breaking into a million pieces, never once asked for my help and remained patient and calm and loving and strong throughout. Somehow, he eventually got the situation under control. Once all had quieted down, I tried to go back to sleep, but the sounds of what I had just heard and the shame I felt for not helping my Dad would allow no such thing.
Finally, sometime after 5:00, the sun rose and I was still awake. The baby monitor was silent and still, and seemed to be staring at me, accusing me. I couldn’t stand it anymore and went up to the house. The grass of the lawn was wet with dew and I heard the waking songs of morning birds. I quietly opened the backdoor and carefully made my way through the kitchen to the entry of the living room. There, the soft early morning sunlight shone on my Mom, peacefully sleeping in her hospital bed, the same way it shines on still fields after a night storm passes through, concealing the violence and turmoil that the dark had allowed. And next to my Mom’s bed, in his chair, the same place I had left him the night before, sat my Dad, also peacefully asleep, a hand’s reach away from my Mom. As I stood there in my Mom and Dad’s living room and absorbed the quiet beauty of the moment and everything it represented, a funny thing happened to me:
My Dad became my hero again.